It was just my third day on the job; I was still learning to use the fax machine. A coworker who’d been off my first two days appeared in my office, introduced himself via a nutcracking handshake. He made small talk, then business-speak, back to small talk. Only so much to be said about the weather, the traffic, and the mayor. A column of silence rose between us. His gaze alighted on my head. “How did you get your hair like that?” He reached across my desk and ran his fingers through my hair.
I gripped his arm mid-arc, squeezed it just hard enough to signal my spirit, and flung it away. “If you want to touch my hair, you ask first. And when you do ask, I’ll say no.”
Shock and puzzlement leaped through his features. He flushed several shades of red, pivoted, exited.
* * * * * *
1980s: Braids and dreadlocks are prohibited in the workplace.
Atlanta Urban League, Chicago Regency Hyatt, downtown D.C.Marriott Hotel, Washington D.C. Metropolitan Police Department. In the U.S. Army, African Americans could not wear braids until 2002. And dreadlocks? Still not allowed.
Everything I know about American history I learned from
looking at Black people’s hair. It’s the perfect metaphor
for the African experiment: the toll of slavery and the
costs of remaining. It’s all in the hair.
Lisa Jones, 1994, Bulletproof Diva
“Do you wash those?”
She, a fellow straphanger, blonde, on the uptown Lexington Avenue express.
“These aren’t braids.”
“Yeah, they are.”
“No they’re not.”
“What do you call them?”
“As in dreadlocks.”
“Do you wash them?”
“Of course I wash them.”
“I didn’t know you were Rasta.”
“I didn’t, either.”
* * * * * *
I can’t remember her name; I can’t remember the year. I recall she was in Boston, and I know it was the 1990s. She tended the front desk of a tony hotel, the kind of place with pearly shampoo bottles in the bath, sumptuous, pressed robes on the door hook, pillowed gold-foil Godiva squares. She wore ornate braids; had been for a few weeks. Guests traced her glimmering plaits with their eyes; they complimented her. Management did not. Management was alarmed. Management, in fact, demanded that she remove the braids, return to her perm, a style befitting a post at the lacquered mahogany station.
Race men and women may easily have straight, soft, long hair
by simply applying Plough’s Hair Dressing…in a short time all
your kinky, snarly, ugly, curly hair becomes soft, silky, smooth,
straight, long and easily handled, brushed, or combed.
Ad inThe New York Age, 1919